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Ketosis and Bodybuilding: Can You Build Muscle on Keto?

Published on: September 22, 2019

Ketosis and Bodybuilding: Can You Build Muscle on Keto?

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Do you believe that you need carbs to build muscle? If so, today’s guide will surprise you. Because here’s what you should know: Ketosis and bodybuilding are an excellent combo for your health and physique.

If you’re interested in a low-carb approach, keep reading. You will learn how ketosis helps you gain muscle and strategies to optimize it.


Ketosis and Bodybuilding

Fact: Building muscle is hard.

It takes the right knowledge and discipline to achieve results.

As someone who wants to “bulk up,” you would probably raise your eyebrows at the thought of reducing carbs.

Carbs are hard to give up, especially if you’ve been so used to eating them. In fact, not having carbs for a day can make you feel awful. (But more on that later.)

Many bodybuilders also think that carbs are essential.

The reason behind this?

The notion that insulin promotes muscle hypertrophy and improves stamina. Try to do some digging, and you’ll discover reports of insulin abuse and its consequences [1].

The opposite is true. Insulin promotes fatty acid synthesis. Thus, it makes you gain weight instead of burn fat [2, 3].


nutritional-ketosis-and-muscle-growth

How ketosis affects muscle growth

Before anything else, let’s do a brief recap - in case you’re not sure what the keto diet is.

The keto diet is a diet that is low in carbohydrates, high in fat, and moderate in protein.

When you reduce your carbs, your body looks for another fuel to replace glucose. It taps into your stored fat to produce an alternative fuel called ketones.

Research shows that ketones provide you with more energy than glucose [4].

Most people follow a keto diet to lose weight. Body fat loss is one of its biggest benefits [5].

But what about muscle growth?

Here are studies that show how nutritional ketosis promotes muscle growth:


how-ketosis-affects-muscle-growth

1. The keto diet helps increase testosterone and human growth hormone (HGH).

Testosterone is a male hormone that gives men their male characteristics. Produced by the testes, testosterone performs many functions. For bodybuilding, it increases the following [6]:

  • Lean mass
  • Muscle size
  • Strength

A 2013 study revealed that reducing the dose of a testosterone gel reduced the participants’ lean mass, muscle size, and leg press strength [6].

Human growth hormone or HGH is a hormone that your pituitary gland produces. Like testosterone, HGH increases muscle growth and exercise performance [7].

How does a ketogenic diet boost these hormones?

One way is that it requires you to eat more healthy fat. Essential fatty acids like omega-3 increase serum testosterone levels.

In a 2016 study, researchers acknowledged the fact that diet impacts testosterone metabolism [8].

The researchers chose mice as the subjects and divided them into two groups. One was the control group, and the other was the dietary fish oil group [8].

The control group consumed carboxymethylcellulose for 7 days. Meanwhile, the dietary fish oil group consumed fish oil for 7 days [8].

Can you guess which group had significantly higher serum testosterone? The dietary fish oil group, of course [8].

When it comes to boosting HGH, here’s what a keto diet does:

It lowers your insulin levels.Dietary carbohydrates spike your blood glucose, causing your insulin to rise.

Remember we mentioned that many bodybuilders believe that increasing insulin builds muscle mass?

Here’s the truth:

Insulin blunts the release of growth hormone [9]. High-carbohydrate foods increase your blood glucose and suppress HGH [10].


2. Very low-carbohydrate diets preserve muscle mass.

Does a low-carb diet cause your muscles to deteriorate? A study suggested that a very low-carb diet doesn’t only lead to fat loss, but it also preserves muscle protein [11].

The author reviewed previous research studies to support this claim.

One study that was cited was that of Volek and his team. In the study, twelve healthy men switched from their normal diet to a very low-carb diet. The diet comprised only 8% carbohydrates. Meanwhile, eight men consumed a regular diet [11].

testosterone-in-bodybuilding

After six weeks, these were the findings (as measured by DEXA) [11]:

The subjects who followed the very low-carb diet achieved a significant reduction in their fat mass. At the same time, their lean body mass increased. The researchers concluded that the decrease in body weight was due to a loss of body fat [11].


3. Beta-hydroxybutyrate prevents muscle breakdown and promotes protein synthesis.

Beta-hydroxybutyrate or BHB is the primary ketone body in your blood.

A recent study suggests that BHB is anti-catabolic. Meaning, it prevents the breakdown process. The researchers found out that during acute inflammation, BHB prevents muscle protein breakdown [12].


ketosis-bodybuilding

Is ketosis good for bodybuilding?

Short answer: Yes.

The studies we mentioned earlier show that ketosis supports muscle growth. It does so by:

  • Increasing your testosterone and HGH
  • Burning body fat while preserving muscle mass
  • Inhibiting muscle breakdown

What about ketosis for physical strength? We all know that strength is essential to power through any workout.

Here’s what you should know:

Transitioning into ketosis can cause unpleasant symptoms such as headaches, nausea, and fatigue. These symptoms, known as keto flu, discourage those who are in a bodybuilding journey [13].

Keep in mind that these symptoms are temporary. Over time, your body gets used to utilizing ketones for energy [14].

becoming-keto-adapted

As you become keto-adapted, your body enjoys a fast and consistent energy supply. Your exercise capacity improves. Your muscles are less likely to get fatigued and damaged [14].

A 2019 study was done on military personnel. This study examined the effect of an extended duration ketogenic diet on performance [15].

Fifteen subjects submitted to a keto diet. At the same time, they participated in a supervised 12-week exercise program. To ensure that they stayed in ketosis, the researchers measured their blood capillary ketones daily [15].

On the other hand, fourteen subjects ate a regular mixed diet [15].

These were the results [15]:

The ketogenic diet group showed an improvement in their body composition. They lost 5.1% whole-body percent fat and 43.7% visceral fat. Their insulin sensitivity improved as well [15].

You’ll be amazed: Their performance during the exercise training did not decrease [15].


tips-to-building-muscle

7 Tips to Effectively Build Muscles While You're in Ketosis

Building muscle in a state of ketosis is doable. You already know this. Next, let’s find out how you can make bodybuilding on keto easier. Follow these 7 simple tips:


1. Engage in regular strength training.

Are you training hard enough?

Engaging in regular physical activity is essential to growing your muscles.

It has been proven time and again that strength training workouts increase your muscle mass and strength. Use a variety of strength training equipment such as free weights, weight machines, and resistance bands [16].

A 2017 study investigated the effect of a keto diet on resistance-trained athletes [17].

The researchers recruited twenty-five college-aged men and divided them into two groups. One group followed a keto diet for 10 weeks. The other group followed a standard western diet for 10 weeks as well [17].

For weeks 10-11, both groups ate carbohydrates. Throughout the study, they participated in a resistance training program [17].

At the end of the study, the researchers had a conclusion:

You can engage in resistance training while eating a keto diet [17].

This was because the subjects in the keto diet group lost fat mass while gaining strength and power. At the same time, their total testosterone levels increased [17].


2. Replenish your essential electrolytes.

Electrolyte imbalances happen to those who are new to nutritional ketosis. This is because glycogen (the storage form of carbohydrates) is bound to water [18].

replenish-electrolytes

So when you eat fewer carbs, your body excretes more water. This explains why you urinate more often at the start of ketosis.

But here’s what happens:

You also lose electrolytes, particularly sodium, potassium, and magnesium. When you exercise, you also lose electrolytes through sweating [19].

Electrolytes play many roles. For bodybuilding, they help contract your muscles, transmit nerve impulses, and replenish your energy [20].


ketosis-and-bodybuilding

3. Eat a keto-friendly snack before an intense workout.

Maximize what you eat before you engage in a strength training workout.

Choose a pre-workout, keto-friendly snack that contains protein and healthy fats. Examples include keto bars, beef jerky, and avocado tuna boats.


4. Maintain a moderate protein intake.

Bodybuilders are often concerned about protein consumption.

Dietary protein increases athletic performance and promotes muscle growth [21].

How much should they have on a keto diet?

A well-formulated ketogenic diet (WFKD) requires you to consume 1.2 to 2.0 grams per kg of reference weight. Note that this range is higher than the recommended daily allowance (RDA) which is 0.8 grams per kg of body weight [22].

While that is the case, note that the protein requirements for a WFKD already includes a buffer. This buffer allows you to recover from stress and exercise [22].


5. Take a creatine supplement.

Fact: Your muscle cells contain creatine, a natural substance that helps make ATP. ATP gives your muscles the energy they need to contract.

But why take creatine supplements?

Creatine supplementation with resistance training increases muscle mass and strength [23, 24, 25].

How do you choose a creatine supplement for your keto lifestyle? Go for one that has no added sugars, fillers, and additives.


sleep-and-bodybuilding

6. Get proper sleep at night!

Did you know that poor sleep sabotages your bodybuilding goals on keto?

You already know that inadequate sleep makes you feel sluggish the next day.

But here’s what a recent study discovered [26]:

Just one night of missing out on sleep causes skeletal muscle breakdown. Not just that, your body tends to hold onto fat. Your blood sugar levels also increase, putting you at risk for diabetes [27].


7. Replace carbohydrates with healthy fats.

When you’re just getting started on your low-carb journey, you’ll find yourself experiencing constant hunger.

Since most of your calories should come from fat, make sure that you eat fat to satiety. Fat is more satiating than carbohydrates [27].

Remember: eating more carbs won’t help you grow muscle.


5 Essential Supplements You Need for Building Muscles in Ketosis

What supplements do you need to take if you’re following a keto diet? Here are some of your best options:


essential-supplements-for-muscle-building

1. Medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs)

MCTs are fats that are created by pressing coconut and palm kernel oils. It offers a wide range of benefits. For those who train, it increases endurance, muscle mass, and strength [28]. To help you shed off excess pounds faster before you build muscle, MCTs boost your satiety levels [29].

fish-oil-keto-supplement

2. Fish oil

Fish oil contains omega-3 fatty acids.

There is growing evidence that omega-3 fatty acids prevent catabolism in skeletal muscle. As you might know, an illness or injury can lead to severe skeletal muscle loss. Yet, supplementing with omega-3 prevents such negative effect [30].

3. Exogenous ketones

It’s no secret that exogenous ketones help you ease into ketosis. But what about your physical performance? Do they help?

Let’s recall the fact that ketone bodies act as an alternative fuel for our muscles during glucose deprivation.

Research tells us that exogenous ketones can be used to enhance human endurance performance. Taking exogenous ketones during post-exercise recovery activates the anabolic mTOR pathway [31].

In case you don’t know what mTOR is, it’s a protein kinase. It promotes protein synthesis and maintains skeletal muscle mass [32, 33].

4. Electrolytes (sodium, potassium, magnesium, calcium)

Reducing your dietary carbs can cause your body to lose electrolytes. While you can replenish them through food, supplements replenish fast and are convenient.

Also, make sure to drink more water, especially if you live in a warm climate. Staying hydrated helps prevent electrolyte loss!

electrolytes-keto-supplements

5. Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs)

BCAAs are essential amino acids that have been studied for over 50 years. They include valine, leucine, and isoleucine.

A 2017 study was done on ten young males who engaged in resistance training. They were divided into two groups. One group ingested 5.6 grams of BCAA while the other group took a placebo drink [34].

Results showed that the BCAA group experienced a boost in muscle protein synthesis [34].


Conclusion

Can you be in ketosis and do bodybuilding? Of course, you can.

But if you want to get results, you need to follow certain rules. They include include optimizing your protein intake and paying attention to your electrolytes.

Eating a low-carb, high-fat diet creates changes in your body. You will go through a period of adjustment which can be hard at first. Eventually, you will see your body transform and be amazed. Stay patient!

Before you get started, please make sure to speak with a physician or trained professional who can help you with your bodybuilding goals on keto.


Takeaways

  • The keto diet lowers your insulin levels, increasing your human growth hormone levels.
  • Beta-hydroxybutyrate, a major ketone body, prevents the breakdown of muscle protein.
  • Regular resistance training while in ketosis helps you lose fat mass and boosts your strength.
  • You need 1.2 to 2.0 grams of protein per kg of reference weight on a well-formulated keto diet. This range is higher than the RDA but accounts for stress and exercise to preserve muscle.

References:

  1. DeNoon DJ. Insulin for Bodybuilding Can Kill. 2003 August 4 - https://www.webmd.com/fitness-exercise/news/20030804/insulin-for-bodybuilding-can-kill
  2. Colorado State University. Physiologic Effects of Insulin. http://www.vivo.colostate.edu/hbooks/pathphys/endocrine/pancreas/insulin_phys.html
  3. Mayo Clinic Staff. Insulin and weight gain: Keep the pounds off. 2017 November 10 - https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/diabetes/in-depth/insulin-and-weight-gain/art-20047836
  4. ... View all references

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